Color Study,  Tangible Intangibles

Are You a Victim of Constancy?


On a daily basis, we don’t give our brains the respect they deserve.  Just take a look at your computer history for the day, let alone the week.  We have asked our brain to go to a zillion sites, read our never ending e-mail, sort and recall.  That alone is commendable!  But do we appreciate that in order to not overwhelm this vital organ, it has devised myriad  programs over time to short cut what our five senses come dragging home continually?  We have two sides of our brain that have to interact in order to perceive all the information coming from our environments.  The visual-perceptual mode in the right hemisphere is dominated by the verbal-analytic left side of the brain.  The left side of the brain is constantly solving the “what is?”, “how to?”, “where is?” of everyday life while the right side helps by quietly sorting out whether a “formula” for that question has been dealt with before and carefully filed. The more often an object or situation is addressed/performed, the better our brain is at coasting on automatic. In a nutshell, this is part of what we call constancy.  We see, we perceive what it is we’re looking at and in a blink of an eye, we understand what to do with what we see.  The world would grind to a halt if every time we looked at an object or heard a sound or smelled a scent, we had to analyze each and every characteristic as something new.

This principle of brain self programming has one downside though.  While it is scanning and sorting at the speed of brain, it is “nichefying” or putting information into categories based on the individual’s background.  As children we are taught grass is green, trees have brown trunks, the sky is blue, I am white, you are black – and then guided consistently in what is true according to parents, teachers and our cultures.  When we become adults it is very difficult to go beyond those guidelines and see that grass is also tan, leaves can be purplish brown, I have undertones of peach and cream, you have coffee and cream with a trace of green.

childrens drawing

Those of us in the creative trades at some point have to learn to see again – really see and release the constancy we’ve held so close.  We know an orange is orange but we fail to see the changes in its color as the cooler, pale yellow light of morning shifts to to a brighter yellow then orange and finally turns to a blue cast in late afternoon. In setting up a still life subject an artist trains his eye to distinguish the highlighted almost white top of an orange versus the shadowed brownish orange at its base.



Claude Monet who painted in France at the turn of the last century became obsessed in about 1877 with the effects of the shifting colors of the day. Not having a time lapse app on an IPhone6 handy or even a trusted Nikon, he would leave home just before dawn carrying 10 or so canvasses and his painting supplies.  He would post himself at a chosen site and sit and paint the same scene repeatedly every hour or so on a  different canvas.  He would return working in succession the following day and the next recording the variations of hues and how they affected the objects of the landscape. Painting other scenes in the same way, he studied fog, steam, and rain and their influence on color.  It was a valuable contribution to art and astonishing to see at that point in history.  Monet was not only handing down a treasure trove of his creativity through the ages, he was constantly refining his ability to see without the chains of color constancy inhibiting him.

The result of studying the science of color only deepens a designer’s or artist’s talent and ability to perceive.  Source colors (or undertones) become apparent and we suddenly understand why the majority of paints sold are white!  We learn to understand that while only one color of paint is used throughout a house, the client will swear the designer used different colors in the various rooms.  The effects of simultaneous contrast ( the changing perception of one color being affected by another adjacent hue), deciphering the value, intensity and balance of the colors you are working with are necessary to thoroughly understand the power of color and harness it as one of your best tools. There are so many resources to learn about color.  A few books I have found invaluable in exploring color in mind expanding ways are:   Color  A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors by Betty Edwards, Bright Earth Art and the Invention of Color by Philip Ball; Colors in Context by Naomi Kuno/ Color Intelligence Institute; The Secret Language of Color by Joann and Arielle Eckstut; Color in Interior Design by John Pile.


“Color is the place where our brain and the universe meet”. – Paul Cezanne

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